Liam Neeson's 10 Best Movies
In this week's Total Recall, we count down the best-reviewed work of the Non-Stop star.
The journey between arthouse and IMAX can be a treacherous trip for an actor, but Liam Neeson has navigated it more nimbly than most over the course of his lengthy career, booking major roles in Serious Movies (Schindler's List) while leaving room for horror (The Haunting), romance (Love Actually), and blockbuster franchises (The Phantom Menace, Batman Begins) -- not to mention a recent string of action thrillers that, with this weekend's Non-Stop, finds Mr. Neeson kicking bad-guy butt on a crowded transatlantic flight. What better way to celebrate his accomplishments than a look at his best-reviewed movies? Here's Total Recall!
Editor-in-Chief Matt Atchity breaks down this week's list.
10. Les Misérables
He's taken on a variety of roles, but if there's one thing Neeson's characters have in common, it's that they always seem to exude a certain nobility -- one that, more often than not, goes hand in hand with a profound sadness. Who better, then, to play the tortured soul Jean Valjean in Billie August's adaptation of Les Misérables? And who better to portray the ruthless, rigidly moralistic Javert than Geoffrey Rush? Victor Hugo's classic novel has been filmed numerous times -- and it's been a musical theater fixture for many years -- but it's difficult to argue with a great story told well, and even critics who didn't see the need for another version found themselves charmed, such as Margaret A. McGurk of the Cincinnati Enquirer, who wrote, "Victor Hugo's great novel Les Misérables has been translated to screen at least five times before. Leave it to Liam Neeson to make a sixth seem indispensable."
Neeson returned to Irish history for 2009's Five Minutes of Heaven, but instead of a Michael Collins redux, he starred opposite James Nesbitt in a tense, heartbreaking character study that uses "The Troubles" as the backdrop for a meditation on the lasting consequences of violence and the weight of hatred. Neeson's gift for world-weariness is put to good use in the role of Alistair Little, the real-life former Ulster Volunteer Force soldier who was sent to prison as a young man for murdering a Catholic boy -- and who consents to meet his victim's brother (played by Nesbitt) in an effort to put the past behind them both. Five Minutes wasn't widely seen, but it enjoyed positive reviews from most critics, including NYC Movie Guru's Avi Offer, who praised it as "A 90-minute tour de force of suspense and intrigue with outstanding, powerhouse performances by James Nesbitt and Liam Neeson" and called it "one of the most rousing and provocative thrillers of the year."
A biopic about the slain Irish revolutionary Michael Collins enticed filmmakers for years, eluding the grasp of Michael Cimino and Kevin Costner before Neil Jordan was finally able to bring Michael Collins to the screen in 1996. Though a number of critics (and more than a few filmgoers) took issue with the ways Collins diverged from its subject's real-life story, pretty much everyone agreed that, age differences notwithstanding, Neeson was perfect for the central role, and not just because his 6-foot-4 frame lived up to Collins' nickname "The Big Fellow." As Mark R. Leeper put it, "Liam Neeson is a big man and plays Collins as a big man, somewhat larger than the people around him. He sweeps into a scene with that large bulk of his and commands it."
7. The Grey
Given the way he's been reinvented as everyone's favorite action hero elder statesman, The Grey's basic plot description -- "Liam Neeson versus wolves" -- might have seemed like the absurdly over-the-top culmination of an unlikely chapter in an impressive career. But as viewers soon discovered, writer-director Joe Carnahan had a lot more on his mind than just Neeson and his human co-stars going toe-to-toe with a pack of ravenous beasts; although The Grey certainly doesn't suffer from any shortage of pulse-pounding action, it also benefits from a surprising amount of thoughtful subtext. As Dana Stevens argued in her review for Slate, "For all its macho standoffs and action set pieces and menacing off-screen howling, The Grey is at heart a simple moral fable about how true heroism consists in helping other human beings to live as long and die as well as they can."
He earned screen time in a handful of films throughout the 1980s, including The Bounty, The Mission, and the Patrick Swayze masterpiece Next of Kin, but this Sam Raimi love letter to the comics was Neeson's first opportunity to really carry a picture. He did it, too, despite spending much of Darkman under bandages and heavy makeup as the titular vigilante, burned and left for dead by a ruthless mobster (memorably played by Larry Drake). Critics and audiences greeted Darkman's pulpy action with enthusiasm, making it one of the year's surprise hits and spawning two (regrettably Neeson-free) sequels. Applauding "Raimi's flair for jazzy visual effects and extravagant action sequences, combined with direction that's full of punch and energy," the Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum applauded Darkman as the summer's "best pop roller-coaster ride around."
Neeson's first big-screen break came courtesy of Excalibur director John Boorman, who spotted him playing Lennie Small on stage in Of Mice and Men and decided he'd be perfect for the role of Sir Gawain in his sprawling, lusty retelling of the Arthurian legend, Excalibur. Featuring lush visuals and a cast that included Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart, and Gabriel Bryne, Boorman's round-tabled epic became a fast late-night cable favorite among adolescent boys -- and the critics liked it too, including Cinemaphile's David Keyes, who called it "one of those great miracles in filmmaking" and said "Its concept of Arthur and the landscape that surrounds him is a benchmark for fantasy as we know it."
Six years after appearing as Obi-Wan Kenobi's mentor, Qui-Gon Jinn, in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Neeson took what seemed at first to be a very similar role in Batman Begins -- but of course, Batman's Henri Ducard is much more than just a mentor to Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale). Eventually revealed as the dastardly Ra's al Ghul, Ducard proved a worthy adversary for the Dark Knight in Christopher Nolan's blockbuster reboot -- and gave Neeson a rare opportunity to play the bad guy. His layered performance helped set Batman Begins apart from the increasingly cartoonish tone previous installments in the franchise had taken, lending depth to the film that led Antagony & Ecstasy's Tim Brayton to proclaim, "There has never yet been a Batman story with quite this kind of psychological trauma. If Ingmar Bergman had ever directed a superhero movie, it would have looked quite a bit like this."
A movie about a sex professor? Sounds like an 1980s teen comedy (and for all we know, it probably was), but in reality, Alfred Kinsey did some groundbreaking, important work in the study of human sexual behavior, including the development of the Kinsey scale, which found a broad middle ground between strict heterosexuality and homosexuality. Of course, he also had a very busy sex life of his own, not to mention health issues and a drug problem -- all of which means Kinsey had all the raw materials for a pretty salacious biopic. In less sensitive hands, it probably would have been, but with Bill Condon directing -- and Neeson, Laura Linney (who won an Academy Award for her performance), and Peter Sarsgaard in front of the cameras, Kinsey was an award-winning critical smash. While some writers thought it let Professor Kinsey off too easy -- and some hastened to blame his studies for the relaxed moral standards of the last 40 years -- most reviews echoed the sentiments of Cole Smithey, who called Kinsey "a sex education movie that uses historical fact and personal stories to articulate things that statistics can't reveal, like the uniqueness of every individual's imagination."
Steven Spielberg circled Schindler's List for years, concerned he didn't have the skills or maturity necessary to dramatize the story of Oskar Schindler, the Nazi Party member who used his position as a German industrialist to save nearly 1,200 Jews during World War II. After trying to give the project away more than once (Spielberg's candidates for his own replacement included Roman Polanski and Martin Scorsese), he finally started filming in early 1993 -- and the result is one of the most widely acclaimed movies of the 1990s, and the crowning achievement of Spielberg's career. Neeson, who was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award, anchors the film as Schindler, lending depth and nuance to the portrayal of a man who started the war as a profiteer and ended it wracked with guilt over the lives he'd failed to spare, despite risking his life -- and losing his fortune -- to prevent the deaths of so many. It may have taken Spielberg time to feel he was up to the challenge of Schindler's List, but in the end, he had nothing to worry about; as Janet Maslin of the New York Times wrote, "Rising brilliantly to the challenge of this material and displaying an electrifying creative intelligence, Mr. Spielberg has made sure that neither he nor the Holocaust will ever be thought of in the same way again."
Overshadowed by the scandal and recrimination surrounding the end of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow's relationship, Husbands and Wives is actually a quite sharply written, albeit sometimes uncomfortably bitter, examination of the hidden stresses and selfishness that can lurk beneath even the strongest-looking romantic bonds. Neeson appeared as part of an ensemble cast that also included Allen, Farrow, Sydney Pollack, and Judy Davis -- playing, for a change, a man who's not only an ordinary modern-day guy, but who gets to peel off a few darkly comic lines before the movie's through. "With its relationship angst and Lolita temptations," wrote the Washington Post's Desson Thomson, "Husbands and Wives hits embarrassingly close to Allen's home. But it also hits its comic target."
In case you were wondering, here are Neeson's top 10 movies according RT users' scores:
1. Schindler's List -- 97%
2. Batman Begins -- 94%
3. Husbands and Wives -- 87%
4. Taken -- 85%
5. Les Misérables -- 84%
6. Michael Collins -- 84%
7. Excalibur -- 81%
8. Breakfast on Pluto -- 80%
9. Rob Roy -- 77%
10. Kinsey -- 75%
Finally, here's Liam Neeson reading the lyrics of Justin Bieber's "Boyfriend" as only he can: